Am I talking to Ed from Arkansas, the overly negative restaurant critic? Or am I speaking with an oddball who requests the worse songs in music history?
If actor Josh McDermitt wanted to make it hard to tell who you were speaking with, he could. You all may know him as Eugene (the guy with the mullet) from AMC's "The Walking Dead." But McDermitt actually got his start in entertainment as a 14-year-old calling up a local Phoenix radio station as different characters he made up on the spot (something he still does from time to time, though he wouldn't reveal his new populace of personas).
My mother always told me that prank phone calls would get me in trouble; she may not have realized you could make a career out of it. But McDermitt's determination to keep up the ruse, his commitment to the bit, has followed him from a precocious teenager all the way to a major role in "The Walking Dead" and it all originated from his own mother.
"My mom was a very crazy woman, crazy in a great way," McDermitt told HNGN. "I definitely get my humor from her. She loves screwing with people and playing jokes and pranks on people. I really get my commitment level from her. She would definitely commit to the bit."
Commit to the bit. It's a phrase that comes up often during our discussion and one that, thanks to dear old mom, applies to both McDermitt and his character Eugene. In fact, it's the main reason both have made it as far as they have.
McDermitt the actor is busy making small roles memorable through a natural blend of humor and drama in hits such as "Mad Men" and "The Walking Dead." Like his varied radio personas, McDermitt has a knack for selling whatever his character's story is with unbroken conviction. His mullet-sporting Eugene in "The Walking Dead" is only alive because of this skill because he convincingly lied to his companions about having a cure for the zombie virus. Yet even after the truth was revealed, fans couldn't quite stay mad at the character.
"I kind of feel like most people would be Eugene in the apocalypse," McDermitt said. "We all want to think we'd be Daryl or Carol or Michonne and we're going to have those people if and when the apocalypse happens. But I feel like most people are going to be ill equipped. They're either going to die or they're going to figure out how to live and they don't necessarily have the survival skills to do that."
In a world saturated with flesh eating zombies, gun toting sheriffs and katana wielding warriors, is it any wonder why viewers have become fond of Eugene? He's an everyman, the Nemo in this fish-out-of-water metaphor. And as a result, we the audience begin to sympathize with his character and, without condoning, at least understanding why he did what he did.
"He lied. He knew that was his only skill. He can do the math very quickly in every situation. He's an intelligent guy and he's kind of a jack of all trades except when it comes to physically fighting...That's where he falls short but he's got people around him to do that for him."
Eugene undoubtedly got off on the wrong foot with both the audience and his fellow characters. But he's carefully worked his way back into everyone's good graces thanks to McDermitt's subtle finesse. His character has undergone an enjoyable arc, becoming a reluctant hero by season five's end and revealing the good man we knew was present the entire time.
"Yes, people probably died because of Eugene and that's not lost on him. But I think that plays into why he admitted that he doesn't have a cure. There's certainly nothing morally wrong or questionable about this character in terms of the other antagonists and I think that's something cool. To see this character who is deeply flawed as most of these characters are and how they come to grips with their flaws and continue to survive."
On a lighter note, Eugene's moments of deadpan levity have become welcome respites in what is otherwise an often dark and grim series. Talking to McDermitt, it becomes obvious that many of his character's positive attributes can be directly sourced to the actor himself.
A throwaway question about the show's new companion series "Fear The Walking Dead" spurs an idea for a new proposed spinoff: "Fear The Living Mullet." We Ping-Pong a few suggestions back and forth before McDermitt hilariously offers Saul Goodman's hair piece and Eugene's mullet (played by Jon Hamm, he insists) as a crime fighting duo in a new sure-fire AMC hit series.
Like Eugene, McDermitt's quirks are instantly disarming, his humor endearing. He comes across as a guy who'd be your friend in both real life and the apocalypse, regardless of the haircut.
The mullet, by the way, has become something of an online phenomenon and McDermitt chuckles often when asked about its rapidly growing popularity among fans (it's a very popular choice for Halloween).
"The mullet has powers for sure," he says with more than a hint of pride. "It stretches beyond the world [of 'The Walking Dead'] and into our world. If you look at the movie 'Pixels,' Peter Dinklage's character had a mullet and he didn't rock it as good as Eugene...Eugene brought the mullet back! I'm honored to look like the biggest idiot I can on TV."
He'll continue to hold that honor as season six of "The Walking Dead" is set to premiere on Sunday, Oct. 11 at 9:00 PM ET. McDermitt may be a bit bias, but he promises the most explosive season yet this year.
"They're trying to reinvent the show every eight episodes so it doesn't become stale. They're also not pushing it so far out of control or so far out there to stop itself that there's nowhere else to go...It feels organic. This season is no exception in how big and awesome it's going to be. We say it every year but we mean it, this is going to be the best season that the show has done. There's so many more Walkers and its going to be massive and enormous. It literally feels like a roller coaster."
McDermitt doesn't share Eugene's monotonous drawl and he, unfortunately, does not sport a full-blown mullet (he's blonde!) off the set of "The Walking Dead." But the two do share a similar ability to make you crack a smile and the both possess the necessary skills to succeed in whatever role they're placed in.
In other words, they both know how to commit to the bit.